To a casual observer, the behavior of the Pakistani state must seem puzzling, if not utterly inexplicable. Consider its relationship with the United States. Both U.S. and Pakistani officialdom have long insisted that Pakistan is a close ally that agreed to assist the United States in the global war on terror in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. It has helped bring a significant number of senior al-Qaeda leaders to justice, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. It has permitted U.S. Predator aircraft to attack al-Qaeda and Taliban targets on Pakistani territory, despite strong opposition from the Pakistani public. It has also permitted U.S. armed forces to ship supplies to Afghanistan over critical land routes running through Pakistani territory.
Yet Pakistan is also supporting Afghan Taliban forces fighting against the United States in Afghanistan, providing them with safe haven on Pakistani territory and, it is widely believed, providing material support and military advice. Furthermore, it is doing so despite the fact that it is engaged in a nasty war with a Pakistani version of same that at one point controlled most of the country’s tribal areas and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Although the Pakistani Taliban are now on the run, they have not been destroyed. Indeed, with help from al-Qaeda and Pakistani jihadi groups based in Punjab they have sustained a damaging terrorism campaign in the urban heartland of the country. And while Pakistani authorities find themselves under attack by the jihadists they once nurtured, they persist in supporting another Pakistan-based jihadi organization, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group that carried out the Mumbai massacre of November 2008.
Pakistan’s relations with the United States have also come under severe strain. The Pakistanis arrested a CIA contractor named Raymond Davis on murder charges in late January and held him for almost two months, despite U.S. insistence that he had diplomatic immunity and should be released. Then in early May the world learned that Osama bin Laden had been hiding out in an army town less than a mile from the Pakistani version of West Point, suggesting that the Pakistanis were protecting him, are incompetent, or had not been trying very hard to find him.
The Feudals and the Army
If all this seems confusing, that’s because it is. But it is not inexplicable. The beginning of wisdom is to deconstruct the convenient appellation “Pakistani authorities.” It is an old disciplinary convention to speak of states as though they are monolithic actors. But it is not always so. With respect to Pakistan, it is impossible to fully understand developments there, in particular the Pakistani decision to use radical Islamic groups for state ends, without understanding who the decision makers are and why they make the decisions they do.
Pakistan is dominated by two groups; a feudal civilian political elite and the Pakistani army. Like the majority of Pakistanis, most members of each practice a pious but tolerant and non-aggressive form of Sufi Islam that borrows heavily from Hindu culture, if not Hindu theology. This form of Islam, the predominant one throughout South Asia, revolves around the veneration of Muslim holy men known as pirs, some of whose ancestors are venerated as saints. Annual celebrations of the anniversaries of these saints at shrines scattered throughout Pakistan project a vibrant, carnival-like atmosphere, featuring the Pakistani version of amusement park rides, freak shows and even performances by transvestite dancers. This is definitely not the religion of Osama bin Laden or Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Pakistani followers of this form of Islam are known as Barelvis. Politics in Pakistan, like the religion of the Barelvis, is deeply rooted in the underlying feudal culture of the region. Political parties are not ideology-based in the Western sense. Most are led by prominent landowners, popularly known as feudals, and rich industrialists, both of whom preside over large, mostly clan-based patronage networks. Their goal in seeking political office is to gain access to state resources (while denying those resources to competitors), which can be doled out to fellow members. This arrangement has proved to be a recipe for chronic corruption and bad government. Parties in power are so narrowly focused on dispensing patronage that they tend to ignore the many systemic problems that plague the country as a whole. Pakistani politicians are inclined to look for low-cost, quick-fix solutions to virtually everything. Rather than deal with tough issues, their default setting is to kick them down the road.
In recent decades civilian politicians have alternated in power with the Pakistani army. The army originally became a dominant force in Pakistani society due to the Kashmir dispute with India. After losing control of this heavily Muslim area in the war that erupted after the partition of the Raj, the early leaders of Pakistan decided to build a strong army as a bulwark against further encroachments. Over the years, however, as Pakistani civilian politicians proved incapable of delivering good government, the army has found it difficult to resist intervening in the affairs of state, either by taking power outright through coups or by engineering the fall of ineffective governments behind the scenes. Unlike civilian politicians, whose claim on power is based on wealth and hereditary influence, the army is a meritocracy. Most officers come from the middle class and see an army career as a way to improve their social standing. The army is widely regarded as the only truly professional organization in Pakistan and has historically proved extremely popular among ordinary Pakistanis. Army officers share a deep mistrust and antipathy toward India, an attitude that is drummed into them from the time they enter the service. It is also an attitude shared by many civilian politicians, particularly Punjabis. The Punjab has strong historical ties to Kashmir, which lies right next door. Since more than half the population of Pakistan is Punjabi, this is a critical political demographic that guarantees the centrality of Kashmir, and thus of India, in Pakistan’s view of the world.
State Use of Islamic Fundamentalists
Looking back on Pakistani history and Pakistan’s relationship with the United States, one is struck by two related phenomena: the tendency for pragmatic tactical judgments to spin out of control, and the uncanny role of happenstance in helping them do so. For example, both the feudal civilian political class and the army have supported using Islamic fundamentalist groups as a low-cost way to pursue Pakistani foreign policy objectives. The first Pakistani leader to do so was a civilian, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the father of Benazir. In the mid-1970s, he began backing fundamentalist Afghan religious parties who opposed the Soviet-backed government ruling Afghanistan at the time. Bhutto was no fundamentalist, nor was he a Barelvi or even a Sunni. He was a Shi‘a from the province of Sindh, a minority sect in Pakistan (as it is within Islam as a whole, as well) comprising approximately 15 percent of Pakistan’s population.
Then came happenstance. Bhutto was deposed by the army in 1977, not because he was a Shi‘a but because he was an authoritarian whose supporters rigged parliamentary elections that triggered violent protests throughout the country. However, in one of those accidents of history that sometimes determine the fate of nations, the army chief who overthrew him and subsequently had him executed, Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, was a Sunni fundamentalist, a Deobandi, to be specific. After the Barelvis, Deobandis constitute the second-largest Sunni denomination in Pakistan.
Deobandis comprise 25–30 percent of the population and occupy a position on the Pakistani religious spectrum not entirely unlike the one filled by Christian fundamentalists in the United States. The sect was formed specifically to purge South Asian Islam of what its founders considered to be the un-Islamic practices and borrowings from Hinduism favored by the majority of Muslims on the subcontinent.
Not surprisingly given his Deobandi moorings, Zia was happy to continue Bhutto’s support for the Afghan fundamentalists. He may also have believed that a religiously oriented government in Kabul would be less wedded to Pashtun irredentist impulses aimed at the Pashtun regions of Pakistan, long favored by Afghan Pashtun secular elites. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, he greatly intensified Pakistani support to these religiously motivated Afghan oppositionists. His chief ally in this endeavor was none other than the United States. Along with Saudi Arabia, the U.S. government provided Zia with the money and arms the Pakistanis needed to fuel the mujaheddin resistance. With guidance from the Pakistani military intelligence service, the ISI, and augmented by Arab volunteers such as Osama bin Laden, the Afghan religious parties made the Soviet occupation so costly that the Russians eventually decided to withdraw.
Although the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan represented the first Pakistani use of Islamic fundamentalists in an insurgent role, it was not the first time Pakistanis had made use of insurgent forces. During the 1965 war with India, the Pakistanis recruited civilians from Azad (free) Kashmir, the small sliver of Kashmir they had managed to hold on to during their first war with India, to infiltrate into Indian-held Kashmir in the hope of fomenting a general uprising. These recruits were not religiously motivated, nor were they very effective. The effort failed.
This first use of a proxy/insurgency strategy had entered into Pakistani army doctrine in the late 1950s. The army had studied insurgencies in Algeria, Yugoslavia, North Korea and China. Skeptical that it could prevail against the much larger Indian army in a fair fight, the army saw the use of insurgent forces as a way to contest Indian rule in Kashmir. Employing surrogate forces that presumably had their own axes to grind also provided them with plausible deniability. So when Afghanistan came along, Pakistani army leaders saw a second opportunity to try their doctrine out.
As things turned out, the anti-Soviet jihad ended up having an impact on Pakistan, as well as the rest of Islamic world, that far exceeded Pakistani (or U.S.) intentions. Aside from fueling a jihadi tendency among impressionable young Muslims that has yet to run its course, it also inspired the founding of the very first Pakistani jihadi group, which eventually became known as the Harakat ul-Mujaheddin (HUM). The HUM was composed of radicalized young Deobandis, many of whom fought alongside the mujaheddin in Afghanistan.
Violent religious sectarianism also emerged in Pakistan during this period. The beginning of the anti-Soviet jihad in 1979 happened to coincide with the Iranian Revolution, an event that spurred a religious revival among young Shi‘a in Pakistan. They found a cause to fight for in opposing efforts by Zia to impose Sunni religious practices on the Shi‘a community. Their protests forced Zia to back down but produced a backlash among members of the Deobandi community radicalized by the anti-Soviet jihad. The result was the formation of violent sectarian groups in the mid-1980s and virtual war between radical Deobandis and Shi‘a. The Barelvi majority stayed out of it.
By the time the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, Zia ul-Haq was dead, possibly as a result of foul play. He was succeeded, somewhat ironically, by Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of the man he had overthrown and executed. In yet another quirk of history, just as the last Soviet soldiers departed Afghanistan, the Muslim majority in Kashmir finally did what it had failed to do in 1965: It rose up in a spontaneous insurrection against Indian rule. The Pakistani army now had the uprising it was looking for. It began training young Kashmiris who had fled over the border into Pakistan, sending them back into Kashmir to attack the security forces the Indians began pouring into the region.
At first the army mainly supported secular Kashmiris, members of a group called the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), the predominant insurgent group in Kashmir at the time. But the JKLF favored an independent Kashmir, not one incorporated into Pakistan. As a result, the Pakistanis eventually switched support to another group that did favor Kashmir becoming part of Pakistan: the Kashmir wing of the largest Pakistani religious party, the Jamaat-e-Islami. When Indian counterinsurgency efforts began to decimate its ranks, the Pakistanis decided to enlist Pakistani volunteers in the effort. Specifically, they encouraged the HUM, only recently returned from Afghanistan, to enter the fray.
This occurred just as a second Pakistani jihadi group was formed: the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Unlike the HUM, the Lashkar is not Deobandi in sectarian orientation. It belongs to the small Ahle Hadith sect, which has doctrinal ties to the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia. To this day, the Lashkar remains the only radical Pakistani Islamic group that is not Deobandi. Then, in 2000, the HUM was supplanted by an even more radical spin-off organization called the Jaish-e-Mohammed. Together, the Jaish and the Lashkar made life miserable for the Indians. By some accounts, at the beginning of the new millennium New Delhi had sent as many as half a million security personnel into Kashmir. The disputed state had become transformed in a single decade into a heavily fortified Indian army camp, with bunkers and checkpoints littering the landscape.
The Rise of the Taliban
Back in Afghanistan, meanwhile, things had not gone well for the Pakistanis following the Russian departure. The communist government the Soviets left behind did not crumble as rapidly as expected, giving time for the various Afghan mujaheddin groups to fall out with one another. Unfortunately for the Pakistanis, the group they were backing, headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, fared poorly in the internecine fighting. Worse still, the side that was winning, the Northern Alliance, got support from India. At this point, in the spring of 1994, five years after the Soviets left, a new group appeared in southern Afghanistan composed of former religious students, most of whom had studied in Deobandi madrassas in Pakistan during the anti-Soviet jihad. Returning home after the Soviets left, they were outraged by the corrupt and arbitrary rule of the local warlords who dominated the region.
These Taliban, as they called themselves, soon developed something of a Robin Hood reputation as they set about righting local wrongs with their own fundamentalist form of rough frontier justice. Their early success attracted the attention of Benazir Bhutto, then in her second term as Prime Minister, who convinced a recalcitrant ISI to end support for Hekmatyar and throw Pakistan’s weight behind the Taliban. The results were electric. Within two years, the Taliban had taken Kabul. By the time I arrived in Pakistan in August 1998, they controlled 80 percent of country.
The Taliban were not just an Afghan force from the start: Pakistani madrassa students, mostly from the Pashtun tribal areas and neighboring Northwest Frontier Province (later renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), also flocked to their banner. By late summer 1998 Pakistani leaders had good reason to feel satisfied with their strategy of using radical Islamic groups for state ends. Pakistani jihadists has succeeded in pinning down a significant portion of Indian army at relatively little material cost. Jihadi pressure played a key role in convincing the Indians to pursue peace talks with Pakistan beginning in 1996. Pakistan’s Taliban allies, meanwhile, dominated Afghanistan, a country long considered Pakistan’s defense-in-depth against India.
But events were already beginning to conspire against them. Again by happenstance, Osama bin Laden, who had been expelled from Sudan as a result of U.S. pressure, returned to his old haunts in Afghanistan in May 1996, just four months before the Taliban took Kabul. He contacted them and soon succeeded in insinuating himself into the good graces of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Bin Laden then used his new safe haven to issue a notorious fatwa calling on Muslims to attack U.S. interests. On August 7, 1998, his al-Qaeda minions bombed the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam.
U.S. government attention suddenly became riveted on Afghanistan. U.S. officials began pressing the Taliban to turn bin Laden over and the Pakistanis to use their presumed influence with the Taliban to get them to cooperate. The Taliban replied that their Pashtunwali tribal code obliged them to grant bin Laden sanctuary; they promised, however, to control him. The Pakistanis, for their part, alarmed by this unwanted and potentially damaging turn of events, tried to persuade Mullah Omar to turn bin Laden over. They got about as far as the Americans did.
Obviously, the Pakistanis now realized that their control over the Taliban was something less than complete. But they were never willing to risk their relationship with their Afghan allies over al-Qaeda’s presence in the country; that relationship constituted a hedge, an insurance policy of sorts, against all sorts of unpleasant but imaginable Afghan futures. Their policy at the time seemed to be based primarily on hope. They hoped there would be no further al-Qaeda attacks against U.S. targets. They managed to dodge several bullets in the three years following the East Africa bombings, including the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which could not be definitively traced to al-Qaeda at the time. But on 9/11 their luck finally ran out.
Just as the Taliban began to cause Pakistani leaders unexpected problems, they experienced much the same with the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Not content simply to attack Indian military targets in Kashmir, these groups began going after civilian and political prey at the very center of Indian power. In December 2001, they launched an attack against the Indian parliament in New Delhi. That attack failed in its goal of assassinating senior government officials but nonetheless brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war. Several months later, they invaded a military housing complex in northern India, massacring the families of Indian soldiers fighting in Kashmir.
The Pakistanis were beginning to learn the hard way that using radical Islamic groups as proxies was hardly an exact science. These groups had their own agendas and no particular sympathy for the people who ruled Pakistan, most of whom subscribed to a form of Islam they despised. And 9/11 made everything worse, much worse, by both clarifying and magnifying the contradictions in Pakistan’s policy of hedging and hoping.
The events of 9/11 began a long downhill slide for the Pakistanis. Pervez Musharraf quickly agreed to support the United States in its war on terror, but only because he had no choice. The United States was angry, and Pakistani policy had arguably been complicit in the attack, albeit unintentionally. Who could say what Washington might do? The Pakistanis were particularly alarmed by an Indian offer to permit the United States to use Indian airbases for staging attacks into Afghanistan. The prospect of a U.S. alliance with India that might end up being directed at them was something Pakistani leaders dared not risk.
Pakistani woes were almost immediately compounded by U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan, which drove retreating Taliban and al-Qaeda forces onto Pakistani territory, specifically into the remote tribal areas in the far northwest of the country and into Baluchistan province to the south. Several senior al-Qaeda operatives even ventured into the Pakistani heartland, hiding out in large Pakistani cities, where they began orchestrating reprisal attacks against Western targets. The Daniel Pearl kidnapping and murder of January 2002 was the first of these. Ominously, too, members of local Deobandi jihadi groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed assisted al-Qaeda in these attacks. When Pakistan actually began helping the United States bring senior al-Qaeda operatives to justice, many of these jihadists allied with al-Qaeda against the state. Jaish-e-Mohammed militants participated in two al-Qaeda-inspired assassination attempts against Pervez Musharraf in December 2003, just months after the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Rawalpindi.
Up to this point, the Pakistanis had left their tribal areas more or less alone. They had refrained from searching for al-Qaeda because they feared they would come to blows with the Taliban. They did not see taking on the Taliban as part of an alliance with the United States against al-Qaeda, and they still harbored hopes of using them again in Afghanistan, once U.S. forces departed. This was not because they were happy with the Taliban, whose support for al-Qaeda had caused them so many problems, but because they perceived them as a less bad alternative to the government then taking shape in Kabul.
There was bad blood between the Pakistanis and Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President. Karzai held them responsible for the assassination of his father in Pakistan several years earlier. The rest of the Afghan government was dominated by the Northern Alliance, a largely Tajik and Uzbek organization that, as noted earlier, had developed substantial ties to India before 9/11. Pakistan’s Afghan allies were almost exclusively Pashtuns, which followed from the geopolitics of the ill-fated Durand Line. And Karzai himself, they knew, had been educated in India.
Indo-Afghan ties grew even stronger in the years following 9/11. Despite the fact that India is not exactly known as a donor country, its footprint in Afghanistan expanded to include an embassy and four consulates, thousands of aid workers and more than $1 billion in aid. The Pakistani army became increasingly alarmed that the United States would withdraw if the Taliban were defeated, leaving behind a hostile Afghan government allied to India. From their perspective, just about anything was better than this.
The U.S. government, meanwhile, began ratcheting up pressure on Pakistan to mount operations in the tribal areas. In early 2004 the Pakistanis reluctantly agreed to do so. Unwilling to send the regular army in, they relied primarily on the Frontier Corps, their locally recruited, poorly trained paramilitary border force. The army was also selective in its choice of targets. It went after al-Qaeda forces protected by local Pakistanis, deliberately avoiding the Haqqani network, the dominant Afghan Taliban presence in the tribal areas, headquartered in North Waziristan.
And what did the Pakistanis get for their troubles? The army failed to bring a single senior al-Qaeda operative to justice. But it did succeed in making enemies out of the Pakistanis protecting them. Encouraged by their al-Qaeda allies, these groups began organizing themselves into what became known as the Pakistani Taliban. They began ambushing army convoys and attacking army outposts in the region. This alarmed and dismayed the mostly Punjabi-led army, which had no desire to get into an armed struggle with fellow Pakistanis, or to start a Punjabi-Pashtun feud. The army also wanted to avoid moving additional forces into the region since this might compromise defenses along the Indian frontier.
For these reasons, the Musharraf government offered the Pakistani Taliban a succession of ceasefire deals primarily designed to end the fighting. The army forces based in the region retreated to their barracks. As a direct result, over the next several years the Pakistani Taliban succeeded in achieving de facto control over large parts of the tribal areas, as well as the beautiful Swat Valley in the Northwest Frontier Province, the most popular outdoor tourist destination in Pakistan.
Ceasefire arrangements with the Pakistani Taliban remained largely in place until the summer of 2007. That was when Pakistani commandos stormed Lal Masjid, a radical mosque and madrassa complex in Islamabad. Its occupants, many of them female madrassa students, had terrorized the Pakistani capital during the preceding six months by carrying out vigilante attacks against shops selling CDs, DVDs and other symbols of Western influence. More than a hundred people were killed in the assault, many of whom had ties to the Pakistani Taliban or to local Deobandi jihadi groups.
The storming of Lal Masjid became an instant cause célèbre within the radical Deobandi community. The Pakistani Taliban quickly disavowed their ceasefire agreements and began attacking army forces. The army, finding itself with little choice but to fight back, sent additional forces into region to pursue offensive operations, first in Swat, then in South Waziristan. The Pakistani Taliban, working with al-Qaeda, retaliated by launching a terror campaign in Pakistan’s urban heartland. Thousands of people have been killed in these attacks, which continue to this day. Benazir Bhutto, assassinated in December 2007, was one of the campaign’s earliest victims.
The Pakistani Taliban were assisted in the terrorism campaign by radical Deobandis from the Punjabi heartland who formed a loosely knit terrorist network of their own that came to be known as the Punjabi Taliban. It included members of Jaish-e-Mohammed and other jihadist and militant Deobandi sectarian groups home based in Punjab province. Its first big attack came against the visiting Sri Lanka national cricket team in Lahore in March 2009.
Mumbai and Beyond
By this time, only one major Pakistani jihadi group remained more or less loyal to the state—the largest and most powerful group of all, the Lashkar-e-Taiba. But even the Lashkar was unhappy with Pakistani policies, in particular, with a peace process between Pakistan and India that had begun five years earlier but that had failed to produce any visible breakthrough on Kashmir. Although the Lashkar refrained from turning overtly against the state, in late November 2008 it carried out the Mumbai massacre, which claimed the lives of more than 160 people, including several Americans.
Indian officials and some U.S. terrorism experts have suggested that the ISI was involved in the attack. This is unlikely. The ISI is not a rogue organization that pursues its own agenda. It is led and directed by senior army officers firmly lodged within the military chain of command. Relations with India were relatively good at the time, and the Mumbai operation, which was obviously designed to play out on a world stage, did enormous damage to Pakistani interests, an easily foreseeable result. It is hard to fathom what the Pakistani army chief of staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, would have hoped to gain by authorizing such an operation.
What is true is that, despite the universal condemnation that followed the Mumbai attack, the Pakistanis declined to move resolutely against the Lashkar. They simply did not want to sacrifice the only real card they had left to play in Kashmir. They were also afraid to convert the Lashkar into an active enemy, for it would have been a formidable one. Its cadres numbered more than 20,000 trained militants, most of them from the Punjabi heartland. The army was frankly afraid of it.
In the tribal areas and Swat, meanwhile, the army was running into trouble. The offensive operations it had launched after Lal Masjid failed to drive the Pakistani Taliban out of either South Waziristan or Swat, but the Pakistanis remained reluctant to move significant additional forces into the region. So once again they opted to try to deal their way out. The crunch point finally came in the spring of 2009. The Pakistani Taliban militants in Swat reneged on a peace deal they had negotiated with the civilian Northwest Frontier Province government. They then moved forces into neighboring Buner district, on the road to Islamabad, menacing the Pakistani capital just sixty miles away. At the time, it seemed that the Pakistanis might be prepared to abandon the region to the Pakistani Taliban altogether. It was not so.
The Pakistani Taliban move into Buner turned out to have a bracing effect on the Pakistani political establishment. The action finally convinced the establishment’s military and civilian members alike that it was time to get serious. The army moved the equivalent of nine divisions first into Swat and then into tribal areas; this was almost a third of the unit strength of the regular army—100,000 men in all. These regular army forces were augmented by an additional 50,000 Frontier Corps troops. There was heavy fighting at first in Swat, with significant Pakistani Taliban casualties. But during the South Waziristan operation several months later, most of the Pakistani Taliban simply fled when confronted with superior army forces.
Although the army now controls Swat and South Waziristan, it continues to chase the remaining Pakistani Taliban from one tribal area to another. Since the South Waziristan operation ended in December 2009, significant episodic fighting has continued in Orakzai, Mohmand, Bajaur and Kurram agencies. But the army has neither destroyed the Pakistani Taliban nor managed to bring their domestic terrorism campaign to an end.
The Deteriorating Relationship with the United States
U.S. officials welcomed these Pakistani moves at first but increasingly complained about the army’s unwillingness to go after the Haqqani network. This network continues to use North Waziristan as a safe haven for staging insurgent operations in eastern Afghanistan. The Pakistanis did agree to permit the United States to carry out Predator attacks against it, presumably in return for U.S. agreement to target Pakistani Taliban leaders. Baitullah Mehsud of South Waziristan, the overall leader of the Pakistani Taliban movement, fell victim to a Predator attack in August 2009. The Pakistanis may also have convinced themselves that, while Predators might kill individual members of the Haqqani network, they could not take down the organization as a whole.
The United States has had difficulty persuading the Pakistanis to go after the Afghan Taliban because it has never been able to portray an end state in Afghanistan that Islamabad was willing to sign on to. The United States has not only shown no sympathy for Pakistani concerns over the Indian presence there, it has actually encouraged that presence. The basic message to the Pakistanis has been that the United States intends to remain engaged in the region for the foreseeable future and so will be able to guarantee that nothing bad happens to vital Pakistani interests. Even had President Obama’s December 1, 2009 speech on “AfPak” matters not featured body language tilted toward the exit ramp, this message would have been a hard sell in Pakistan, where the United States is regarded as a strictly fair-weather friend. Pakistanis remember how in 1980, just a year and a half after the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan, the Carter Administration, supported by Congress, slapped sanctions on Pakistan over its nuclear program, a program the Pakistanis felt compelled to pursue in order to keep pace with India.
The fact is that the United States is extremely unpopular in Pakistan. Almost all Pakistanis blame America for their current woes. As they see it, the United States drove the Taliban and al-Qaeda onto their territory (they ignore Pakistan’s own role in the creation of the former, which gave succor and protection to the latter). The United States pushed Pervez Musharraf into a disastrous war in the tribal areas, which ended up triggering the domestic terrorism campaign from which they still suffer; here, arguably, they have a point. Pakistanis are frustrated by the U.S. unwillingness to become involved in the Kashmir dispute because of longstanding Indian objections to outside involvement. And they are angry that the United States continues to ignore their concerns about the Indian presence in Afghanistan. On top of all this, Pakistani religious parties, electorally weak but strong in street power, stir up further resentment by charging that the United States is at war against Islam, that America is a depraved and debased society, that Jews control its media and banks, and by hawking all the rest of the traditional conspiracy-minded cant that suffuses the region and populates Pakistan’s Urdu-language popular press.
It is hard to see how the United States can change this basic dynamic. Washington probably lacks the ability to shape a future for Afghanistan that would be acceptable to Islamabad. The Pakistanis would like to see a secular pro-Pakistani Afghan government in Kabul, but there is no such animal. They might be prepared to accept a peace deal in Afghanistan that would constrain Afghan Taliban ambitions in some fashion. This could help prevent al-Qaeda from reestablishing itself there while limiting Indian influence in the country. They are also painfully aware, given their pre-9/11 experience, that their ability to control the Afghan Taliban is limited. Pakistani leaders also doubt that the United States has the military strength or staying power to mortally wound the Afghan Taliban, who, like their Pakistani counterparts, tend to move elsewhere when confronted with locally superior force. The June 2011 announcement that U.S. forces would return to pre-surge levels by the end of 2012 has only reinforced the impression left by the President’s December 2009 policy statement. The Pakistanis are more convinced than ever that, when the United States does leave (again), the Afghan army, constructed largely from a Northern Alliance base, will be unable to pick up the slack.
Washington has found it difficult to bring more pressure to bear on Pakistan because U.S. forces are so heavily dependent on the two main supply routes that pass through Pakistani territory on their way into Afghanistan. The Obama Administration tried to up the ante last fall by deliberately sending helicopters into Pakistan to attack Afghan Taliban targets. This crossed a longstanding Pakistani red line, and Islamabad retaliated by shutting down one of the supply routes, quickly forcing the Administration to back down and apologize. The U.S. government also sharply increased its drone attacks against Afghan Taliban targets during 2010, causing the Pakistanis increasing consternation.
Relations have deteriorated even further this year due to what has now become a cascade of incidents and reactions to them. In late January, a CIA contractor named Raymond Davis was arrested in Lahore after killing two Pakistanis who he said were trying to rob him. It later emerged the two were probably ISI informants detailed to follow the American, who was part of a CIA operation surveilling a local militant group, almost certainly the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is based near Lahore. The Pakistanis were unhappy that the CIA was targeting the one jihadi group they remain on relatively good terms with and was doing so without their knowledge or permission. They refused to release Davis, despite U.S. claims that he enjoyed diplomatic immunity, until the CIA assured them it would keep the ISI better informed about its activities.
Yet less than a month and a half later, the U.S. military carried out an assault on the Abbottabad compound housing Osama bin Laden, again without Pakistani knowledge or permission. The Pakistanis were not only humiliated that bin Laden had been brought to book in their own back yard; they were angered that their U.S. ally failed to consult with them. They soon knew, too, thanks to the U.S. press, that, as part of the mission’s planning, U.S. forces had been prepared to kill Pakistani soldiers had they offered any resistance during the course of the operation. It is a daunting realization that a presumed ally would behave in this way.
Given the immense importance of bin Laden, if the operation had simply been a one-off affair carried out against a background of solid bilateral cooperation, the Pakistani reaction would have been muted. But coming in the aftermath of the Davis affair and the CIA promises of better coordination that flowed from it, the operation convinced the Pakistanis the Obama Administration was prepared to ride roughshod over their interests and could not be trusted. Washington, for its part, found it difficult to believe that at least some high-placed Pakistanis did not know all along that bin Laden was there, this despite the fact Islamabad had every reason to favor his demise since that would presumably hasten the U.S. departure from Afghanistan.
Bilateral relations remain in a deep freeze. The Pakistanis have sharply reduced intelligence cooperation with the CIA and temporarily stopped issuing visas to CIA officers newly assigned to Pakistan. They have also ratcheted up pressure on Washington to end or sharply curtail Predator attacks in the tribal areas. The United States has responded by suspending one third of all U.S. military assistance to Pakistan.
Although the recent sharp downturn in relations is primarily due to competing U.S. and Pakistani objectives in Afghanistan, it also reflects important differences in their respective perceptions of radical Islamic groups. The United States tends to lump all jihadi forces together while the Pakistanis make fine distinctions between good and bad jihadists. This helps explain why the U.S. government was prepared to believe that the Pakistanis might actually be doing business with bin Laden; the Pakistanis, for their part, see no contradiction in supporting the Afghan Taliban while engaging in combat with their Pakistani Taliban brethren.
The danger is that further incidents of the Davis and bin Laden variety could push the relationship over the brink. A substantial congressional cutoff of aid or the linking of such assistance to unacceptable (or unachievable) demands could produce similar results. Particularly worrisome are reports of growing anti-U.S. sentiment within the Pakistani army officer corps. If U.S. and Pakistani forces ever did stumble down the slippery slope into armed confrontation the results would be disastrous for both sides.
For better or worse, the Pakistani army is the only force in the country capable of resisting the radical Islamic groups threatening the state. Since the U.S. government has been unwilling, and may be unable, to address Pakistani concerns about the Indian presence in Afghanistan, it may simply have to accept the consequences that flow from this: first and foremost, that Pakistan is not going to move against the Afghan Taliban regardless of what any U.S. administration does. It’s a bad prospect that only looks decent because all the other prospects are worse.
The Lingering Radical Islamic Threat
It is truly sobering to realize that even if things go relatively well in Afghanistan, the Pakistanis are certain to have their hands full with their own radical Islamists for years, probably decades, to come. Also sobering is the realization, after years of needless confusion, that radical Islamists in Pakistan are vastly more dangerous for the United States, its allies and the world at large than anyone or anything in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani army has the resources to keep its Taliban at bay, but probably not to fully defeat them. They and their al-Qaeda and Punjabi Taliban allies can keep the domestic terrorism campaign in motion for years to come. However, although these groups are capable of causing mayhem, they remain far too few in number to threaten the survival of the regime, let alone the state.
That might change under one condition: if the Lashkar-e-Taiba finally decided to join them. The poorly trained police would be little use, and incidents of domestic terrorism could increase dramatically. If the Lashkar allied itself with other radical groups and began seizing territory in parts of Punjab and Sindh, it would be up to the army to root them out. But the army is already overstretched. Even if the Lashkar refrains from turning against the state, it still retains the ability to carry out future Mumbai attacks, any one of which could lead to a war between Pakistan and India that could go nuclear or otherwise end in Pakistani defeat.
Equally worrisome is the continuing proliferation of radical mosques and madrassas in the country—facilities that already number in the thousands. These serve as feeder institutions for radical Deobandi groups, but the Pakistanis fear the consequences of moving against them. The storming of Lal Masjid in the summer of 2007 showed just how dangerous a single such attempt could be. What would happen if they tried to storm or merely shut down by other means a hundred or a thousand Lal Masjids? Pakistani army leaders are not anxious to find out.
So, where is this all going to end? As I indicated earlier, the Pakistani default setting is to kick serious problems down the road and act, as they finally did in Buner, only when there is no other choice. The problem is that the forces of radical Islam are now so deeply entrenched within Pakistan that they probably cannot be completely rooted out, even if the feudal civilian politicians and army officers who run Pakistan finally decide to try. Although these forces will probably not be able seize power anytime soon, they will continue to pose a threat, not only to Pakistan, but to the rest of the world, for some time to come. We will probably see an end to it only when the radical Islamic ferment that has roiled the Muslim world for the past three decades finally comes to something like an end. No one can say when that will be.